Utopia: Next Stop or Last Stop?by Bill Bellows
Post by Bill Bellows, Deputy Director, The Deming Institute.
Sir Thomas More was not the first person, nor the last, to disagree with King Henry VIII. His last serious conflict, refusing to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn as the Queen of England in 1533, was interpreted as a snub against Anne. From this episode, More’s enemies organized efforts to arrest him on charges of treason, ending two years later with his beheading. A tragic ending for the Member of Parliament and author; who, nineteen years earlier, described the fictional island republic of Utopia. Common explanations suggest this landmass in the Atlantic Ocean represented a perfected society, one ultimately unreachable. 500 years later, visions of Utopia live on in our imaginations. But, what can be said of the enduring concept of perfection?
I have often entered a Do It Yourself shop in search of a specific tool or piece of hardware, not knowing where to find it and sought out assistance from a staff member. With their guidance through the aisles, the interaction inevitably ends with the question, “Is this what you are looking for?” and my reply, “Perfect!” In other words, “exactly what I had in mind.” Such an explanation of perfect differs fundamentally from a definition of perfect as an unreachable endpoint. That is, in terms of a product or a service, there will never be a better one. While I acknowledge my use of “perfect” to respond to questions such as “Is this what you are looking for?,” I have serious doubts about the use of perfect in the context of an ultimate achievement, perhaps characterized by “The Pursuit of Perfection,” a phrase often attributed to Toyota’s Lexus division.
As with Utopia, the concept of perfection as a pinnacle of performance is hardly limited to Toyota. British actor Dudley Moore came to fame in the United States in the 1970s with the film 10, a romantic comedy in which he was paired with American actress Bo Derek, the perfect woman, a “10” on a scale of 1 to 10, if not 0 to 10. What matters is this scale, with a parallel to an Olympic judging system of 1 to 10, ends with 10 as the highest possible achievement in beauty as well as athleticism. What are the implications of a measurement scale that terminates abruptly? What can be said of the continuous pursuit of perfection, if perfection represents an endpoint, such as Bo Derek? While exploring a generation before models Gisele Bündchen and Naomi Campbell graced the covers of Vogue magazine, would it be possible for Dudley Moore’s character to find someone more beautiful than a 10? Can an organization practice continuous improvement and simultaneously believe in perfection in this context? Does CI stop at perfection? On several occasions, I have heard the logic “continuous improvement is a journey” and “perfection is a very distant goal,” well in keeping with Thomas More’s Utopia. A distant goal, agreed, but also a point of stoppage that conflicts with my understanding of continuous, quite often defined as “happening or continuing without break or interruption.”
Might it be possible that seemingly Utopian end points, such as the achievement of zero defects, zero waste, and the elimination of non-value efforts, stem from how individuals and organizations currently think about their efforts, without realizing the conflict between a focus on continuous improvement and the existence of perfection, even if a distant goal? To perceive improvement as continuous requires thinking past stops that offer the illusion of barriers to improvement, much as Sir Roger Bannister raced past a four-minute mile and Chuck Yeager flew a fighter plane beyond the sound barrier. Would continuous improvement be a focus of exploration in Utopia?